MURMANSK, Russia (AP) — In an immaculate and unprecedented salvage effort, the sunken Kursk nuclear submarine was raised from the Barents Sea floor Monday and began its final journey to shore, clamped under a jumbo barge.
Salvage crew members who were prepared for the worst drew a deep sigh of relief after the trouble-free lifting, which followed more than four months of technical problems and uncertainty.
“I’m very proud that we made a success,” said Frans van Seumeren, president of the Dutch Mammoet company, which raised the Kursk together with another Dutch company, Smit International.
“We worked hard, sometimes it was difficult but in the end we succeeded,” van Seumeren said, his voice trembling with emotion.
It took the Mammoet-Smit International Consortium just over 15 hours to complete the operation. The submarine was lifted on steel cables lowered from the Giant 4 barge and put in clamps under the barge, its protruding conning tower and tail fins tightly fitting into holes carved in the vessel.
Vice Adm. Mikhail Motsak, the Russian naval commander overseeing the recovery operation, said the Kursk should arrive in the harbor of the town of Roslyakovo, near Murmansk, early Wednesday, provided the weather stays calm and allows the salvage team to take the shortest route possible. The barge is being hauled by a tugboat.
“Once we reach the shore, we will have a good drink, according to a Russian custom,” Motsak said from aboard a rescue ship.
If seas get rough, the barge may take a longer route, allowing it to wait out a storm near the coast. Weather showed a trend toward worsening on Monday evening, with snow flurries covering Murmansk with a thin, white film.
Russian and Dutch experts were stunned by the ease of the operation, despite fears that it would take many hours just to free the submarine from the sediment of the seabed.
“We expected major difficulties, but everything went on in a surprisingly smooth way,” Russia’s leading submarine designer, Igor Spassky, told Russian television.
The operation was originally set for Sept. 15, but was delayed repeatedly because of storms and technical difficulties. The Dutch consortium previously severed the submarine’s mangled forward section, which will be left on the seabed because of concern that it might break off and destabilize the lifting.
Spassky said previously he feared the front section, hidden deep in silt, hadn’t been completely sawed off and could hamper the salvage effort. “When we lifted the submarine, I felt as if a huge burden fell off my shoulders,” Spassky said. “I was so gripped by emotions that I couldn’t contain tears.”
Each of the 26 cables lowered from the barge and plugged into the holes cut in the Kursk’s hull is a bundle of 54 super-strong steel ropes. A central computer controlled the lifting.
Remote-controlled cameras and divers kept watch over the submarine, and radiation gauges sent a stream of data about the condition of the Kursk’s twin nuclear reactors, which showed no sign of a radiation leak.
Before the submarine is put in dry dock, new comprehensive radiation measurements were to be conducted to make sure no radiation leaks into the atmosphere. Once the submarine is docked, the navy will remove the remains of the crew and 22 Granit supersonic cruise missiles.
Other submarines have been lifted in the past, but none has been comparable in size to the giant, 18,000-ton Kursk. Five other sunken nuclear submarines — two American and three Russian — remain buried at depths of up to 16,000 feet because raising them would have been enormously expensive.
The Kursk sank just 356 feet below the surface. The salvage operation is costing the Russian government about $65 million.
The government said the Kursk must be raised to avoid any potential danger to the environment from its nuclear reactors and to shipping because of its position in shallow waters. The navy also hopes to determine the cause of the Kursk’s sinking, which remains unknown.
The Kursk, one of Russia’s most modern submarines, exploded and sank in August 2000 during naval maneuvers, killing its entire 118-man crew.
After the Kursk was raised Monday, eight Russian navy ships passed over the site to lay wreaths in memory of the Kursk’s crew.
“A large group of dolphins followed the ships, as if they were also saying their last goodbye to the crew,” Motsak said.